Santa Maria di Leuca is as far south as you can go in Puglia. It’s less than 60 k from Otranto (previous post). An easy day’s outing you would think, but when I checked how long it would take, the site I rely on showed an astonishing 1 hr 40 minutes. On one hand I was glad. It meant that this stretch of the SP358, the coastal road, really did follow the coast. On the other, from past experience, I had a feeling that by the time I added in all the usual stops for photos and asking for directions, it would probably take me 2 1/2, maybe even 3 hours. In addition my B&B hosts had told me about two sites along the way that were assolutamente da vedere. Although I hadn’t come across either of them when I was planning my trip, their suggestions for sites I absolutely had to see while I was staying with them had been excellent, so I was excited to check them out. What I did know was that I would be travelling through the most rugged and least inhabited part of Puglia, so when I arrived at Santa Cesarea Terme I stopped. It was a bit early for lunch but I hoped there would be somewhere to have a quick lunch.
I usually avoid places with Terme in their name. Terme means Thermal Baths or Hot Springs. For its size, Italy has quite a few of them. If you google ‘thermal baths Italy’ you’ll see what I mean. There’s even a site called ‘The 100 best thermal baths in Italy’. From what I observed when I was living in Italy they are as popular now as they were in the days of the ancient Romans. But I’ve never seen the allure of sitting with a bunch of strangers and their various ailments in what struck me as a large hot tub. I’m obviously missing something, because even in a place as remote as Santa Cesarea there is evidence of humans enjoying the hot tub experience as far back as the Palaeolithic Period. Even in the period we often think of as the Dark Ages, the comforts – and no doubt pleasures – to be found in the caves the hot water flows from were well known. In fact some believe Santa Cesarea Terme was named for a virtuous young maid of the time. In the story, Cesarea, who wished to become a nun, was forced to flee from her home to escape the incestuous advances of her father. After searching far and wide she found shelter in one of the caves. Not long after, the villainous father tracked her down. And this is where the story gets a bit murky. In one version, upon entering the cave, the wretch is swept away by the water and drowns and as his evil body decomposes it turns the water sulphurous. In another, much earlier legend, the role of the dark forces is played by the Leuterni. In case your knowledge of Greek mythology is as extensive as mine, the Leuterni were a tribe of giants who, having been forged in fire and sulphur, believed themselves to be invincible and for some reason decided to wage war against the Gods. This of course did not end well for the giants, some of whom Hercules killed – ironically on the Campi Flegrei (Burning Fields) west of Naples – while others escaped to the grottoes in question and it was their decaying bodies that turned the water sulphurous. Both these versions are of course problematic because sulphur, with its age-old association with the devil, is a crucial element of the water’s therapeutic benefits. The problem was solved in the usual way. The waters were purified – albeit still laden with beneficial sulphur – by the miraculous intervention of the young virgin.
Santa Cesarea Terme is now one of the biggest and most popular thermal centres in southern Puglia. But not long after after Cesarea’s deus ex machina, it was abandoned for a couple of centuries. Not because the hot springs dried up or people lost their taste for them, but because the non-stop attacks by the Ottomans outweighed any pleasure or benefit the waters offered. The locals moved to the safety of inland settlements and the area was virtually uninhabited until the mid-1800’s.
With its rebirth the town took on a whole new life. Amongst the aristocracy and wealthy merchants of the time, vivere bene, a kind of 19th century ‘good life’ was all in vogue. The fresh sea air, spectacular views and therapeutic waters provided the perfect venue for their social, as well as their physical well-being. Following the example of the Venetians who had built magnificent villas along the Brenta Canal, ostensibly to be close to their agricultural enterprises, they began to commission extravagant, ostentatious villas for their summer sojourns. The mirage-like cupola I was looking at belonged to Villa Sticchi, one of the most extraordinary of those villas. After the waitress took my order I got up to get a better look.
I couldn’t decide which was more amazing – the mere existence of such an extravagant structure in the desolate countryside or the fact that its design was so ostentatiously inspired by the very culture that had, until not that long ago, terrorized the area.
When my waitress came back with what turned out to be a lovely lunch – I am constantly being amazed at how good the food can be, even in the simplest of places – she had a more down-to-earth take on the villa. In his bid to outdo his contemporaries, combined with a weakness for gambling, the original owner had gone bankrupt.
The palace brought to mind the garden follies that were in vogue in the 18th century gardens of France and England. All the finest gardens had a mock Roman temple, or an ruined abbey or, if the owner’s tastes led to the more exotic, perhaps an Egyptian pyramid or a Japanese bridge. But those ‘folies‘ were strictly ornamental. They weren’t built to be used for any purpose other than to amaze and astound one’s visitors. They certainly were not meant to be lived in.
A few kilometres further south was one of the sites my B&B hosts had recommended – the Grotta della Zinzulusa. If it hadn’t been for them, I probably would have driven right by. The view from the road gives no sense of what’s going on below you and the signs were not the type that would ordinarily induce me to stop.
I’d had a hard time catching the name. Zin-zoo-loo-zuh. No wonder. It’s not Italian. It’s from zinzuli, local dialect for the standard Italian word stracci (strach-chee) which means rags. The Grotto of Rags?
I found the story of how the grotto got its unusual name on an Italian blog – La Leggenda della Zinzulusa http://www.lameta.net/blogsalento. Here’s the gist.
‘Once upon a time a terrible and powerful baron governed the area around Castro (the nearest town to the grotto). He was so cruel and evil his wife died from the pain, leaving her defenceless young daughter to a life of misery, clothed in rags. One day a good fairy decided to put a stop to the injustice of it all. She seized the baron, and hurled him to the depths of a grotto along the coast. Where the evil baron landed, the waters of hell gushed forth and formed a lake. The young maiden married her prince and the wind carried off her rags to the grotto where they turned into stone. Upon witnessing these terrifying events, the shrimp who lived in the grotto, lost their vision.’
The zinzuli in the legend are stalactites, the strange icicle-shaped formations that hang from the ceiling. They’re formed from calcite, the principal element of the limestone that covers such a large part of Puglia. Part of the fascination of caves like this, even for a casual visitor like me, is that in addition to the unearthly shapes hanging from the ceiling, there are equally bizarre formations rising out of the earth.
If you are paying attention – hard to do on the slippery path – you’ll notice that often where there is a stalactite there will also be a stalagmite. This is because not all the calcite in the water that drips from the ceiling is caught in the stalactite. The rest drips onto the floor of the cave, where it slowly solidifies into stalagmites.
No doubt scientists have their reasons for giving the two types of formations such confusingly similar names, but if you like to appear at least somewhat knowledgeable about the places you visit and your area of expertise lies elsewhere, not to worry. Some kind soul has come up with an excellent mnemonic. The ‘c’ in stalactite stands for ceiling. And the ‘g’ in stalagmite stands for…
The detail about the blind shrimp struck me as rather random until I read about a species of blind shrimp, Typhlocaris salentino, that live in the lake. Perhaps a bit of retroactive embellishing?
It takes all kinds and I am glad of it, but to willingly choose to spend one’s time – as a professional or as hobbyist – in these dark, dank places, when one could be out in a garden under the endless, warm embrace of the sun – OK I know, there’s the rain and planting bulbs on a cold, dreary fall day is no fun – but still, like the hot tub I guess, the attraction escapes me.
The views from the road south of the grotto made the slow going well worth it. But after a while I began to worry that I had somehow driven past the second site my B&B hosts had recommended. It was a bridge. You would think that I’d know if I had driven over a bridge, but the entire day’s outing was only 60 k and according to the odometer I was almost there. I hate retracing my steps so when I saw a couple with shopping bags getting out of their car I pulled over to ask. ‘Mi displace disturbare..’ Sorry to bother you, but do you know where Ponte Ciolo is? Not for the first time, if only I’d held on a little bit longer. The bridge was just beyond the next curve in the road. As it turned out they weren’t in the least disturbati. In fact they were happy to chat. They were from the north of Italy and stayed here every summer. The woman’s sister had a beautiful garden in Taranto (in the north-west of Puglia). They asked me if I knew about ‘Cantine Aperte‘, the winery festival that was being held that weekend. They knew the owner of one of the wineries. I had difficulty understanding the woman, even when she repeated the name of the winery. The husband caught on and said, Bisbiglio. (bees-beel-yoh). She had been saying ‘Whisper’. The owner of the winery was English. It was in a place that sounded like ‘in day-pres-suh‘. It was in a depressed state? That didn’t sound promising. By this point I was totally muddled – not sure if they were speaking English or Italian. But the fellow, who by now I realized was a real spiritoso – someone who likes to joke around – again came to my rescue. All the people who live in the village are depressi, so they called it Depressa. They were so delightful and so definitely not depressi I added the village to my list of must-see sites.
Ponte Ciolo (choe-loe) crosses a particularly beautiful channel. The name comes from ciola, dialect for gazza ladra, the (perhaps unfairly) maligned robber magpie that loves to nest in the rocky crags.
Fortunately, the season had yet to begin here too. It wasn’t just the crowds – online photos show wall-to-wall bodies covering the tiny beach – that I was glad to miss. Ponte Ciolo is 37 metres high. The narrowness of the inlet make it seem even higher. A perfect magnet for dare-devil divers. I once came across bungee jumpers hurling themselves off the Pont de l’Artuby in northern in Provence. It turned my stomach. The year before a young fireman from Brindisi, an experienced diver, had suffered a pulmonary embolism after jumping off the bridge – they don’t dive, they jump – and lost consciousness on the way down. When only his shoes rose to the surface, friends standing on the beach dove into the water. He awoke in hospital with no memory of what had happened. He owes his survival to those friends.
I decided to climb the path inland and get a view of the bridge from there.
Along the path there were the usual wild flowers and then I came to an extraordinary sight. A clump of giant campanulas. Their botanical name is Campanula versicolor Hawkins, but because the only region in Italy where they grow is Puglia, here they’re known as campanula pugliese.
In 1992 the World Wildlife Fund and the Società Botanica Italiana published the Libro Rosso delle Piante d’Italia, the first in a series of Red Books on not only the plants, but also the animals and habitats at risk in Italy. Although it is not native, the campanula is included in the list of endangered plants in Italy.